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In British actor Steve Coogan's latest film, The Trip(IFC Films), the British comedian plays a fictionalized version of himself. His "Steve Coogan" character has been commissioned by a U.K. newsaper to write about six restaurants in Northern England. When his relationship hits the skids right before he leaves and his girlfriend refuses to join him, he decides to take his friend—fellow comedian and impressionist, Rob Brydon, also playing a heightened version of himself—along for the journey.* The movie, which was originally a BBC series, was directed by Michael Winterbottom. He's directed Coogan and Brydon before in the clever and complicated Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. This effort is an ambling portrait of the relationship between the two men. Between courses at fancy and bucolic boites, discussions of art, love, and battling Michael Caine impressions ensue.
Slate spoke with Coogan about the difficulties of playing himself, his disdain for impressions, and his love of a talking dog video. (Disclosure: My husband works for IFC films.)
Slate: You're playing a character called Steve Coogan in this movie. How closely does the character hew to your actual self? Were there particular aspects of your personality you ended up emphasizing?
Steve Coogan: It's a combination of all those things. There's elements of me that are in there. But the elements that are me are exaggerated, given more of a caricature. And the same goes for Rob. The other side of it is there is some invention there, too. We fashioned it based loosely on who we are. We manufactured and overemphasized the differences between our two characters so that we could come up with that tension and acrimony.
Slate: What sort of traits do you think that you overplayed to play up that tension between the two of you?
Coogan: I come up as slightly too precious and pretentious, and though there's some truth to that, I'm not as po-faced and neurotic and anxious as I come across in the film. I'm a bit more laid back and don't take myself quite so seriously. So I exaggerated that.
Slate: The conversations between the two of you flowed so naturally in the movie—how much of it was improvised and how much of it was worked out before you were there?
Coogan: Well half-and-half, really. I manufactured with Rob—we'd have conversations ourselves in reality, and then say, well that would be a good conversation to have, let's have that, and you can emphasize this, and I'll interrupt you and say this. We'd sort of figure it out before we'd do it. But some of the conversations happened completely naturally, and once they did, then we'd have to shoot the scene from other angles, and we'd have to have the conversation again, and try to cover the same ground. But we were always shooting with two cameras so we could kind of say whatever we liked in a given moment.
Slate: The impressions the two of you did stuck out as the most lighthearted and fun parts of the movie. How did you develop the skill of impersonating people and is there someone you particularly enjoy impersonating the most, besides Michael Caine?
Coogan: The thing is, when I started out in the business 20 years ago, that's how I started doing stand-up comedy and doing impersonations. But I always hated it, and hated doing it, really. And so there's truth in that when Rob wants to do them and I say that I think it's pathetic.
Slate: Why do you think it's pathetic?
Coogan: I don't quite think it's as bad as I make out. I think it's trivial, and when you sort of want to be taken seriously or show that you have substance to your comedy and that you're creative, then doing voices like that is just like a party trick, nothing more than that. I find impressionists slightly annoying, really. I mean they're sort of fascinating but I don't find them particularly funny, even though I can do it. So we made a virtue of that in The Trip, by having Rob, who's very comfortable doing them, dragging me into doing them, so there is a part of me that's competitive. Do I have a particularly favorite one I do? I like doing unusual ones, like Martin Sheen, people like that, ones that aren't immediately obvious.
It's something I left behind a long time ago, and tried to get away from, so I've got a difficult relationship with impersonations.
Slate: This is your third collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom (after 24 Hour Party People, and Tristram Shandy). What's your working relationship like with him, and what makes you keep coming back to him as a director?
Coogan: He always does something bold and different. He's not lazy. He's not interested in repeating himself. He likes to take a risk creatively, and I suppose I've got a very good relationship with him. He takes me slightly outside my comfort zone, which I strangely like. I like sort of discomfort.
Slate: This is the second time you're playing yourself in a Winterbottom movie—in Tristram Shandy, you played yourself playing Tristram. How is it to keep playing versions of yourself in these movies? Do you have different "Steve Coogans" that you're putting forth as the role requires? It is a very strange feeling to be playing a fictionalized version of yourself?
Coogan: It is a strange feeling. But it's also quite liberating too. Because we're fictionalizing it by having actors play my parents and Rob's wife and my girlfriend are all actors, all the people in it are actors, it gives you license to invent things. But there's a kernel of truth in some of the things that we do. It's strange and often it's uneasy really, but most of the time it is quite liberating. My concern doing it is that it comes across as self-indulgent. It has to have some meaning besides navel-gazing, or else it's dull for people, boring.
Slate: A few years ago in an interview, you said, "The default response these days is to curl your lip up at everything whereas the radical choice is to say something non-cynical. Doing something with genuine sentiment is the most avant-garde thing you can do at the moment." Do you feel that playing these versions of yourself is something genuine, and that you feel really shows something to the audience that's earnest?
Coogan: I like to think it's got—that's the pathos in it. It's not just satirical but it has light and shade and it has funny moments and moments of contemplation. It ticks that box. Michael does have—he makes genuine movies that he genuinely believes in, irrespective of how commercial they might be. He tries to do something different and I think there is a lot of arch, clever cynicism, which can be entertaining, but I crave something more, so, yeah, I like to think it does.
Slate: Back to the realism of The Trip—Are you a foodie? Is writing about food something you'd want to do? How did that conceit arise?
Coogan: Not especially. It was Michael's idea. He liked what Rob and I did in Tristram Shandy and he wanted to build on that, and I was slightly reluctant and I wasn't sure there was a lot of mileage in it. But he invented this reason that I would go around the country reviewing. It's not something I would ever do, if a magazine asked me to do that I'd just say no. For the purposes of The Trip, I said I was kicking my heels, and it embeds a reason for us to be together on a journey. We don't talk about the food that much, to be honest. Michael originally intended that we would. But we talk about art and creativity and our lives.
Slate: I only remember you talking about that one drink that looks like snot.
Coogan: That's the full extent of my culinary critical faculties.
Slate: Even though you're not interested in food, I've read that you've been cast in Good Vibrations –about the influential punk rock record store owner Terri Hooley. This is the second time you've done a film about the U.K. music scene—the first being 24 Hour Party People, which was about Tony Wilson and the Manchester-based Factory Records. Do you have a great interest in music?
Coogan: I do, but I'm slightly out of date.
Slate: What do you like to listen to?
Coogan: Guitar bands, all the bands that are retro sounding. Like Kings of Leon. What I don't like is dance music or hip hop or any of that sort of thing. I'm basically an old fart when it comes to my music tastes. But yeah, I'm sort of stuck—I like the Smiths and the Talking Heads and Radiohead.
Coogan: We're writing it at the moment, and we're shooting it next year. It's going to be shot in England. We haven't cast it yet, apart from me.
Slate: Are you glad to go back to that character? Does it feel like a regression, or does it feel like you can do new things with it?
Coogan: We're feeling excited about it. I'm doing it with Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham. Peter is in America now and has been writing a lot with Sacha Baron Cohen, but he's come back to work on this. And Armando has been off doing his own thing. But we're sort of reunited for this because we did some webisodes, these series of short episodes, 12 of them that we put online, and they were a big success in England. It was kind of a way of road-testing the character, and we realized it does work, so we're very happy about that. And it whetted our appetite; we realized there was more left in the character.
If it was the only thing I was doing, then yes, I would probably be a bit paranoid, and feel like I was doing a revival tour, like a band. But we're creatively juiced up about it and we think it's funny, and I still like the character despite its success.
Slate:Are you more interested in your cult failures than the things people are really jazzed about? Or do you not pay attention to critical reception or popularity?
Coogan: I do a bit. I did a character called Saxondale that I really loved and had fairly good crits, but didn't capture the public imagination the way Alan did. But I still like that character as much as Alan, and that has a kind of cult following. I also have a cult following in the U.S., and people mention that series, and I like when people mention that series. But the thing is, Alan is a character I still like, but it's not like I'm going to do it forever. It feels like this is probably the last hurrah, and I'm working on other things. Less comedy. I'll always do some sort of comedy, but I'm working on more dramatic things, I'm writing.
Slate:Can you talk about those things?
Coogan: There's a Paul Raymond project I'm doing with Michael Winterbottom that's being written at the moment by Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon, that's something I'm pretty excited about. I'm doing a film with Julianne Moore and Evan Rachel Wood in New York in August called What Maisie Knew, and I'm excited about that.
Slate: Based on the Henry James novel?
Coogan: That's right, based on the Henry James novel. I play the ex-husband of Julianne Moore and the sort of tug of love over Maisie. I'm doing a film with, ah crikey … Nick Broomfield! [He's] directing a film. We're doing it in October in Tanzania with Stephen Dorff. Those kind of exciting things I'm looking forward to. They're serious roles.
Slate: Though Tanzania with Steven Dorff sounds like a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas scenario, on the surface of it.
Coogan: It's set in the Congo in 1960s, I play a writer, he plays a member of the CIA.
Slate: Finally, what's the best thing you've seen on the Internet this week?
Coogan: That talking dog. Have you seen that talking dog? It's very funny. It's really stupid but it makes me laugh. It's just a dog, and they've dubbed on the owner—it's American—the owner teases the dog about all the treats that he's had out of the fridge and how he's eaten them all and he's not going to give them to the dog, and it has the dog talking back to him. It's really hard to describe but that made me laugh a lot. It's not particularly sophisticated, which contradicts everything I've just said about my life.
Slate: The American audience already thinks you're sophisticated, so you don't have prove anything to us.
Coogan: That's good. It's unsophisticated, but refreshingly unsophisticated and funny.
Interview and audio have been condensed and edited.
Clarification, June 9, 2011: This article originally stated that Steve breaks up with his girlfriend before the trip. The movie doesn't make clear the exact status of their relationship when he leaves.